“People want high quality, neutral information”

Jimmy Wales

The Internet has fuelled the process of globalisation, connecting people across oceans and continents, turning the world into a ‘global village’. Wikipedia, with its aim to produce “an encyclopedia for every person on the planet in their own language”, is an exemplar of this drive.

Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, is available in 284 languages from Abkhazian to Zulu. There are in excess of 85,000 active ‘Wikipedians’ from across the globe editing the website’s more than 21 million articles. Each month it is visited by around 400 million people, making Wikipedia the fifth most popular website in the world. Jimmy Wales is its public face and co-founder (or, according to Wales himself, the sole founder – the precise details are disputed). After a spell trading futures and options in the early 1990s, he set up Bomis – what Wales has described as a “guy-oriented search engine” – which provided him with the capital to start Nupedia, a peer-reviewed online encyclopedia, and then Wikipedia.

Global caught up with Wales in London following one of his many speaking engagements – his easy charm and self-deprecating wit make him a favourite on the lecture circuit. He talks about efforts to encourage a more diverse range of contributors to Wikipedia and the need to develop communities of editors for the smaller language groups. He believes that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right and refuses to submit to censorship. Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia has forged a sense of community among contributors and readers around the world, the culture and ethos of which have been shaped, to a large extent, by the force of Wales’s personality.

Global: How and why has the Internet helped to connect cultures? What specifically can Wikipedia do to help break down social, political and economic barriers?

Jimmy Wales: The ‘how’ is fairly obvious: people now have the ability to communicate with others all around the world. If you have an interest in some topic and you find a message board or go on Twitter to talk about it, you’ll end up talking to people from all around the world. It just happens automatically without anybody actually making a specific effort to use the Internet for inter-cultural dialogue.

In terms of Wikipedia, from the very beginning our work has been fully global in scope. We want to create a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. It means that we have people editing Wikipedia from many different cultures. Of course, there are controversies where different groups of people might have a different perspective on something [but] what is really powerful about the Wikipedia model is that we try to be neutral and we try to bring together those points of view.

Wikipedia advocates ‘free knowledge’ but expensive technology – like the computers and smartphones needed to access the website – can create a divide between the technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. What can be done to overcome this? Is there anything specifically that the Wikimedia Foundation is doing to ensure that the free knowledge it supplies is freely available?

A free encyclopedia for everyone requires that people have some way of getting access to it, but we are a long way off [that] for many people. One of the things we have done from the beginning is the free licensing model, which means that people can take the content, make a copy and redistribute it in any way they want. There’s a project in Argentina where a group of volunteers has created an offline version of Wikipedia on DVD [which is] distributed by an educational foundation to rural schools. It gets updated from time to time and this happens with very little work on our part.

The next billion people who come online are going to come largely through mobile devices. So we have to make sure that Wikipedia works well on a mobile device. We have just announced a partnership with Telenor, a big mobile carrier throughout Asia. The basic idea is ‘Wikipedia Zero’ – 155 million people can now get access to Wikipedia on their mobile device and pay zero data charges. As people begin to have smartphones, they may not use them very much if the data is really expensive. It is a win-win situation for us and for the mobile companies because there is consumer resistance to getting a smartphone.

I think that the ongoing march of technology is going to begin to bridge that digital divide. If you plot on a chart the price of food for the last forty years, it’s declining – there have been some spikes but generally it’s declining very slowly. If you look at the price of telecommunications, it is collapsing at a very fast rate. There will be people who have good access to the Internet through a mobile device before they have reliable access to food and water.

Around 87 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are male and 83 percent are from the global North. How does this affect the scope and bias of the website’s entries? What are you doing to encourage a more diverse range of contributors?

In general, you won’t find a strong male bias on any particular article but what you will find is that the topics of interest reflect the interests of (and I will oversimplify here) the 26-year-old, unmarried, no children, tech-geek man. They are really interested in technology. What they are not interested in might be childhood psychology, and this is reflected in our entries. So if you go to our entry on the USB standard, it’s really good. The people who wrote this really know what they are talking about. If you go and read something about child psychology, it will have a shorter entry. It won’t be that great. So having a more diverse contributor base is really important.

To address these kinds of issues, we are working to make the editing interface more natural, more modern, more usable. Right now it is still quite geeky and difficult to edit. When you make something too technical, the only people who can do it are computer geeks and they tend to be overwhelmingly men. You exclude, not just a lot of women, you exclude my father, for example, who is incredibly knowledgeable about old cars.

We are [also] really studying how to encourage [growth] in different places. One of [the] things about social media is that it is social. You may have one or two people working all by themselves in Wolof, the language of Senegal, for example. They are plugging away, writing a little every day but nobody else is there to help them. It is just not that fun and they drift away. [What] we can do at the Foundation is make a deliberate push to get to a critical mass, to suddenly say, “Now you have got 10 or 20 people and you are meeting up and you are going out to dinner once a month.” Just helping some of these communities get off the ground.

Wikipedia boasts that it is available in more than 280 languages, but many of these different versions are not well populated. Are readers and editors of minority languages regularly accessing their own-language websites or are they resorting to using the more comprehensive English, French or Spanish editions?

Typically, in Africa in particular, we see usage of whatever the colonial language might be – English, Portuguese, French – and not so much of the local language. Although the Swahili Wikipedia is quite large – 25,000 entries I think – so people do use that.

There is a view which [says] – and I have heard this in India – why bother with the local languages because everyone who has a computer can speak English. That is no longer true because the price of technology is coming down very quickly. What people don’t realise is that reading as a skill is not particularly useful for some people. [If] there is nothing to read because not much is published in my language, I can listen to the radio. That changes dramatically once you have a mobile device and you can look online.

Suddenly reading becomes fun, a useful skill. So making sure that the tools are there for people to be able to work in their own language is incredibly important.

How has Wikipedia managed to generate a community spirit and cultural identity among a remote and disparate group of contributors?

A big part of it is we have this very simple, powerful idea: a free encyclopedia for everyone. That’s a unifying factor. All our decisions and all our community rules and norms tie back to that.

There is always, in any community, questions about the limits of debate. We take quite a narrow view and say, “No personal attacks”. I think my own personality does have some influence. From the very beginning I had an idea of what kind of community I wanted us to have. So when people ask, “Why should you get kicked off the site for calling one person a name?” Well, that is an interesting debate but I don’t care. That is not the community that we are going to have.

You’ve sometimes been described as a benevolent dictator.

Sometimes? Rarely! I have always rejected the label and I have said, “That is completely ridiculous. I’m not benevolent at all.” [Laughs.] The way I describe my role is as a constitutional monarch, in the sense [that] I have very little actual power and my power (like the Queen’s) has been reduced over time. Really, my job is to cut ribbons and wave at parades and be a symbol and a spokesperson for a concept. That is a special role and it does give me a certain position in the community but it’s not [that of a] Henry VIII-style king.

The annual growth of the English edition of Wikipedia is slowing markedly. Does this mean that we’re approaching the point where we can see a maximum number of articles? What factors affect the growth rate?

I have always been very careful not to speculate on how many articles we will end up with. If I say how many [entries] there are going to be, then it is inevitable that it will be ten times that. At the same time, I think we can talk about some of the factors that will contribute to limiting that. One of our big principles is verifiability. We are sitting here and I have a cup of coffee. Could we have an article about this particular cup of coffee? Well no, there is nothing much to be said about it in the first place. Second, you and I are here and we can see it and write about it but nobody else can really verify that. They can’t check our work.

You can’t have an entry about every single thing in the world, there’s a limit to what you can write about. Where does that limit lie? A few years ago, there was a guy who came to our annual [volunteer] conference. He had an encyclopedia of 20,000 biographies of notable people in Poland. He’d gone through and randomly selected 100 entries to see how many of those people are covered in the Polish and English Wikipedia. He found only a tiny percentage had been covered in English. Here is a biography of the Mayor of Warsaw in 1843 – not a major figure in history but there is verifiable information about him. People could look it up and write about it and so the real question is: who is going to bother? Well, you never know. This guy might bother. Other people might bother. So you can imagine Wikipedia being much larger than it is today with all kinds of obscure historical events and people – but there are limits.

What are the main censorship issues affecting Wikipedia? In which countries do you face the greatest restrictions? And what methods can you employ to overcome these restrictions?

The biggest set of restrictions that we face is in China. China has the most comprehensive censorship programme in the world – in terms of the number of people and the amount of the content affected, it’s at the top of the list. Our principle [is] to never cooperate with censorship. We can’t stop [countries] from filtering their own network but we won’t participate.

A big part of it is diplomacy – I have gone to China and visited the Minister and he has visited me in California. We don’t agree but at least we have a relationship. I believe that they won’t shut off all of Wikipedia without at least talking to us first. It has also been important to us that Wikipedia becomes more popular in China because the more used it is, the harder it is for them to shut it off.

Filtering particular articles is something that we are quite opposed to and I think we should continue to speak out about it. We see a lot of filtering in the Arabic countries and that is problematic. Some of that is more cultural – sensitive topics around sexuality and things like that. But some of it is overtly political, censoring any mention of certain opposition figures [or] incidents in history that don’t reflect well on the current regime.

In terms of what we can do about it, I think we just continue to put more pressure on. It’s a fundamental human right to have access to knowledge. I think we are a very powerful voice because of our own principles. Wikipedia is not a place for advocacy. We are not here to overthrow governments. We are here to describe the world. We write in a very neutral way. We use reliable sources. That gives us a certain moral authority.

Are any circumstances that would lead you to withdrawing from particular countries?

Would we close down the Chinese language Wikipedia? No. It will always exist for whoever wants to use it. Would we avoid having employees or servers in certain countries? Absolutely. We wouldn’t put servers in China, for example, because in order to do that you have to get permission. In order to get permission, you have to agree to censorship rules, which we won’t do. That is true in many countries where we feel that the risk would be high of having to comply with some local law that we couldn’t in good conscience comply with.

You have just opened your first office outside of the US, in India. Why India? Were there any specific cultural barriers that you had to overcome in setting up the office?

We have a very strong commitment to the languages of the developing world. We wanted to start in a jurisdiction where we already know what to do. There are active communities there [with] very eager members working across different languages. The people who edit Wikipedia typically speak English and so they work together and across different languages. You may have a language that only has 3,000 articles but people who are editing it are plugged into the broader Indian language community for advice and support. Also, the rate of access to the Internet is growing quickly in India and we know that we are really digging into people who don’t speak English. That’s why we chose India.

Yes, we did find it a bit tricky and complicated. Lots of paperwork. But other than that it is actually fairly straightforward. One of the things that we fi nd all around the world is that our communities are quite similar. Everywhere you go in the world, people want good, high quality, neutral information. Everywhere you go in the world, people think you should be nice to other people. That is just completely universal.

Interview by Elissa Jobson

About the author:

Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of Wikipedia and Chairman Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation


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